Sources of Violence

January 31, 2013Keith Hebden

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One of the ways individuals and societies have been shaped by unjust systems is in relation to violence. Violence is that which works to reduce our humanity. This may be physical force, but not all force is violent. It may be any form of coercion that forces one to adopt a position of power over another.

Violence is a dominant theme through both the Old Testament and the New Testament. But violence is not the last word even if much of Christian witness might lead us to believe that God’s violence is a moral and practical option.

In the Old Testament we often read of a wrathful even genocidal God: one minute sending in agents to destroy everything in a given area (Isaiah 13:15–18) and the next moment espousing love and showering the object of affection with gifts and blessings (Isaiah 14:1–2). In this concept of God, love and violence go hand in glove without a trace of irony (Psalm 136:10).

The prophets, to whom we turn for visions of justice, and mercy, are rarely any gentler than the Judges, Kings, and Psalmists. We have already heard from Isaiah’s God but Elisha’s temper and cruelty is hideous yet sanctioned by the divine. The comical brutality is narrated when Elisha was confronted by children calling him ‘Baldy’ and responded by getting God to set bears on them, murdering forty-two of them (2 Kings 2:23–24).

Equally, the New Testament has some difficult passages: St Paul is happy to hand believers to Satan for the destruction of their bodies (1 Corinthians 5:5); Jesus promises worse than fire and brimstone from above (Matthew 10:15). Meanwhile, in the Acts of the Apostles a financial vanity on the part of some new believers leads to their immediate execution directly by God (Acts 5:1–11). This is not the stuff of ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’.

We need to understand what the motivators of violence are. Individually and collectively people act with great compassion and sacrifice but also with terrible inhumanity. It’s right that we ask ‘Why?’ Here are six potential sources of violence; perhaps you can think of others?

  1. Deference
  2. Fear
  3. Helplessness
  4. Worldview
  5. Scapegoating
  6. Inhumanity


First let’s look at deference: our attitude to authority figures and our keenness to defer to them in all matters including those that guide our moral compass. Stanley Milgram, an American psychologist, wanted to know how far ordinary people would be willing to go beyond their usual moral limits, when deferring to an authority figure.

Milgram set up a simple yet profoundly significant experiment. Two people would face one another either side of a glass screen. One had tasks to teach the other and a panel of buttons. The second was attached to electrodes and had a few buttons to register the degree of pain felt. The second was, in fact, an actor and would pretend to be painfully shocked as the ‘teacher’ – the real subject of the experiment – pressed the buttons the teacher believed she or he increased the intensity of the shock each time the other person failed a test.

As the screams of anguish became more distressing, many people who took part would hesitate and yet they would press on past what they thought were dangerous levels of electric treatment because they were assured by an authority figure in a lab coat that they would not be held responsible.

Many of us have been taught from early years to discern right from wrong based on rewards and punishments. We become good people but our moral compass is external to us. We know when we are being good because we are being rewarded by an authority figure and we know when we are being bad because we feel like we have let down the person in charge and ultimately those who brought us up. I am not just talking about parents who smack here but rather all attempts to coerce people into being good instead of helping one another to connect with our own real needs and those of others.

Spirituality anchors the activist in recognition that the divine spark animates all creation, making responsibility personal and wellbeing corporate. A compassionate activist’s only authority is the One, referred to by St John as ‘Love’, who is discerned with humility and mutual aid. Any other authority needs to be held in permanent suspicion relative to this Love.


Our second source of violence is fear. Adrenalin and fear are important factors that can lead us to violence. Fear is rooted in anxiety about not having our basic needs met. This is ultimately a fear of dehumanization and death. Most of the time, preserving my own life is a useful instinct. But the ability to override that instinct with a trust that all life is held in God alters the control we have over our responses to danger radically. Those who lose their life will save it while those who save their own lives may lose their humanity.

The possibility of seeing beyond fight or flight into a third option of nonviolent resistance can be opened up with a disciplined rhythm of prayer in community. This is because doing the work of spiritual contemplation together changes us.
Bringing our liturgical life into the public square – as we shall see in later chapters – turns our corporate contemplation into something new. Nothing changed my relationship to my community’s prayer book more than praying it in a police cell. Nothing changed my experience of the Psalms more than saying them in the shadow of a nuclear weapons factory. Nothing changed my experience of the book of Lamentations more than saying them in the city centre interspersed with the names of the casualties of war.

By understanding and speaking out our needs and by hearing with compassion the needs of others, we learn the source of both our fear and our love for others. The Bible allows the whole cacophony of voices room to speak: from the most powerful to the least. In hearing this rich heritage and all the voices of those whose needs remain unmet in our own time, we face up to fear in ourselves and in others. Perfect understanding leads us to perfect love and perfect love casts out all fear.

Silliness plays a part as well. As a ten-year-old I used to love fighting and would sometimes have to sneak into the house to wash off the blood. But as I got older so my fear grew. I will always remember the day I avoided a bloody exchange outside a pub when I was sixteen. A good friend and I had a disagreement over a girl we both liked. We were in a pub and worse for wear. What started out as a quiet argument was managed by the baying crowd into a stand-off on the pavement outside.

We stood opposite each other glaring; each daring the other to move forward and attack. We goaded each other as the crowd of our peers stood around shouting ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!…’ In a moment of sobriety I became more aware of the crowd than of my opponent. I realized I didn’t really want to fight but was now too afraid to back down. I knew the argument was unhelpful but the time for words seemed to have vanished. I needed somehow to diffuse the situation.

I still don’t quite know how it came to me: I unclenched my little fists and grabbed my own ears, making them stick out, while puffing up my cheeks and sticking out my tongue. It was my ‘Pob’ impression; I’ve since seen it in photos taken around the same time. My opposite number couldn’t help laughing, at which point we shook hands and he bought me a pint – much to the disappointment of the crowd who weren’t quite sure what had happened. Finding a way over the other side of fear often involves being creative and daring in ways that, aside from the moment of inspiration, is often hard to plan.


What Walter Wink calls ‘the myth of redemptive violence’ is the commonly held belief, hugely invested in, that violence not only saves us but that it is an important measure of moral rightness. Our whole worldview is shaped by a belief in the myth of redemptive violence, which we often give in to, either in our thinking or on an emotional level. We act out of this belief when we act without stopping to ask ourselves which over-arching story of how the world works is guiding us.
From children’s cartoon characters (Popeye, The Incredibles, Superman), to blockbusting films (Kung Fu Panda, X-Men), western culture has been saturated with the idea that those who win in battle are thus proven to be morally superior. The underlying belief is that the universe, or the divine, is inclined to favor the righteous in battle so you know whose side good/God is on by seeing who claims victory.

This belief has a number of antisocial effects. It inclines us only to listen to the victor’s version of history. There is an ancient African proverb: ‘Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.’ This refusal to hear critical voices in relation to a conflict opens us up to the idea of conflict in the future.
Those who are victorious make a moral claim on those who believe in the myth of redemptive violence: the world would be a worse place had they lost, according to their telling of the tale, and allegiance to them in the future is vital for keeping further evils at bay.

The worldview that violence saves us determines more of our actions than we might realize. From styles of parenting and leadership, through reward and punishment, to our seemingly instinctive desire to call the police who carry with them the constant threat of violence in order to protect our property and person, we rely daily on the availability of saving violence. Our taxes pay for the military; our parades and religions celebrate the honorable dead. We have a cult of the myth of redemptive violence that’s so all pervasive that, like most all-pervasive myths, we rarely notice its influence.


For a couple of years I lived in East London. I loved the small community of social housing tower blocks we lived in. It had its challenges as most communities do. Communal bins were regularly set alight for a while and we would wake up in the night with our bedroom full of smoke, for example, or our neighbors would threaten one another with knives. But we got involved in the residential committee and the local church and got to know everyone on the ground floor fairly quickly.

But the area had a reputation for trouble and the police were keen to show that they were doing their bit. Just before we arrived a sign was put up facing our bedroom window that said, ‘Warning: Anti-Social Behaviour is an Offence’. We didn’t like opening our curtains to that each morning so we changed it: ‘Warning: Love one another’. Much better!

But one day it all went wrong. A neighbor decided to antagonize a guest at our house and stole his camera. The next day we went over to try and settle things. We were confronted by bizarre claims being made against us as well as threats of blackmail. My wife and I were threatened and sworn at as we left the house over the coming days and weeks, and going home was difficult.

I resisted calling the police at first but, under pressure from others, finally did so. They came over, listened, had a chuckle, and were generally useless. We asked for mediation but they said we could press charges or not. We chose instead to find every opportunity to show compassion. Eventually they started acting like nothing had happened. Then one evening, when both the adults had either drunk heavily, taken a lot of coke, or both, one, standing outside her home, frightened to go back in, broke down and confessed everything. In the weeks and months around this event we relied on the love and support of neighbors and our residents’ group who helped us through with good humor and advice.

Reflecting back on this incident, I wondered what had caused me to phone the police. I knew they had nothing to offer the situation. I wondered if there was a deeply held conviction, going back to my childhood, that the police are there to protect me from baddies. But primarily there was an acute feeling of helplessness. The community I lived in had no means of dealing with tensions between neighbors without reference to state authorities. We had forgotten how to constructively hold one another to account and so, childlike, we ran to an external enforceable authority in times of internal conflict.

It takes a number of incidents of police intervention, whether as victim or offender, for us to lose our childlike trust in state-sponsored penalties and to begin to wonder if there might be better ways of feeling secure. But meanwhile we feel helpless.

Most of all, whether we choose to make use of protective, or saving, violence for ourselves, we are constantly confronted by the shadow of violence. A source of violence is our inability to see nonviolent options that work for us. In a sense this is what this whole book is about: moving out of helplessness to a compassionate confidence in God’s wonderful gift of human community.

We have a whole host of legal violent options at our disposal; police, courts, parents and carers, and prisons being the most obvious. Governments throw huge amounts of money at a penal system of social ordering and at the study of war for the safeguarding of the state. Nation states, who rely on our belief that violence is our savior, keep us dependent on their protection from external threat. Because of this we are de-skilled in nonviolent options, and even the way we talk to one another becomes about reward and punishment or the threat of violence.

We have been schooled to think that the only choice in most situations of conflict is fight or flight, so rather than assess the moral implications we simply work out the likely outcome and duck and dive accordingly.

Of course this isn’t the whole story; our true human nature pokes through sometimes with creative solutions and win-win opportunities but these are the exception to the norm.


Another source of violence is scapegoating. Social philosopher Rene Girard describes this as rooted in conflicts that naturally arise when we compete with those we admire. Imagine two lads who play constantly together and share all interests bar none. They, fish, climb, play, and fight together and of course support the same football team. One day one of them meets a girl; she is adorable and he adores her. He tells his best friend how beautiful, intelligent and funny she is and the friend is keen to share in his pal’s enthusiasm.

The friend is so keen to be like his best friend in all things that pretty soon he too is in love with the girl. It is at this point that all hell breaks loose and for the first time these firm friends fall out with each other. It scares them and both hope to resolve their dispute, but they are unwilling or unable to find the source of it. Instead, they seek an outsider to be the target of their anger. The girl, whose arrival on the scene coincided with the conflict, is the obvious choice. She must be blamed in order to preserve the ‘peace’ between the friends.

Scaled up, the same can be true of any community where identification with one another’s desires leads to an inter-communal conflict, which is resolved either by the group destroying itself in revenge or destroying a symbolic outsider. The group usually chooses the outsider rather than face deeper internal issues.

There is an ancient tradition both within and beyond the biblical text of this process. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is a description of a goat being chosen each year to bear the sins of the whole community and be exiled: sent into the wilderness. All this makes for peace but it is a false peace because it is temporary and because it does not deal with the cause of conflict and in the process creates innocent victims.

Identifying the likely scapegoats in our societies and standing alongside them, equipping our communities with means of identifying and working through the causes of conflict, is the stuff of the good news of Jesus. Jesus after all was an innocent victim made to pay for the sins of the system but vindicated by a resurrecting God who refused the sacrificial offering of the ‘Human One’ as Jesus called himself (Matthew 26:63–64) and turned the scapegoating world upside down. In telling the story of a resurrected innocent victim, the gospel writers bring to the forefront a story that has long been part of the Jewish tradition: that it is the outsider, the scapegoat, the one who is beyond care that directs us to the true compassionate justice of God.


Our final source of violence is the inhumanity that results from our disconnection with the world outside ourselves. The more distant we are from a meaningful relationship with creation, the more likely we are to act impersonally and oppressively toward it. The more impersonally and oppressively we act, the more numb becomes our connection to the universe, robbing us of our humanity and of a meaningful relationship. This truth is an important corollary to any belief that there are two groups: victims of oppression and those who benefit from it. In the deepest sense of ‘human being’ all of us are victims of oppression, whether we are the initiators or the receivers of violence. No wonder Jesus told us to love our enemy; any other advice would play into our sense of inhumanity and lead only to more violence and greater estrangement.

My grandmother on my mother’s side was ‘a Theobald’ and the Theobalds were said to be so closely identified with one another that ‘if you kicked one, they all limped’. Whether this was true or not (I never tested the theory) it shows an ability to identify the others with the one person. It showed connectedness on a manageable scale. It also created mutual aid and discouraged internal conflict because what was good for one was seen as good for all. Such a narrow definition of our unity is problematic in many ways but, scaled up to the whole universe, it lets us in on a wholly different spiritual perspective.

A lack of personalization makes violence or oppression more likely because we cannot see the connection between our violence and the harm we do ourselves. We do not automatically notice our humanity being diminished every time we diminish the other person. This is why, below, a whole chapter is committed to explore the meaning of personalism. Being a person and being compassionate are indivisible as much as being dehumanized and lacking compassion go together too.

The same is true in our lack of connection with creation. If we do not see our oneness with the earth we don’t mind ransacking its resources to live luxuriously. If the rest of creation is separate from us then we fear it more and are more inclined to subdue, control, and exploit it. If being human means being in partnership with creation, we cease to be fully human when we reduce the humanity of another person or we elevate our species above the rest of the universe. To be human is to be free and just and to be a partner of creation: creation’s advocate, not creation’s boss.

We can see that there are plenty of reasons to act violently but none of these are healthy or likely to lead to outcomes we want. None of them bring salvation to the world. Deference leads to an externalized morality projected onto the powerful people we seek to please. Fear causes us to operate out of a desire for self-preservation and dislocates us from others.

Helplessness is rooted in our failure to see alternatives to violence, often because violence, of one form or another, is so readily available to us. Our worldview teaches us that justice favors the mighty and dignifies our violence, projecting authority onto might. Scapegoating results from a failure to deal adequately with the sources of conflict among us; it leads to a false and temporary peace and an endless spiral of violence. Inhumanity makes violence a more palatable option because our fear and desire to dominate are partners in making us neurotic and ever more power-hungry as a species.

For each reason to choose violence there is a nonviolent alternative. This option needs to be chosen each moment, and lived in, as we reintegrate with our true humanity. Walter Wink calls this the ‘third way’ of Jesus: It is the constructive and restorative way of nonviolent resistance that we find in the Bible and most explicitly in the New Testament. Being compassionate is an act of resistance; it is different from being caring, or passive. Compassion, literally meaning ‘to suffer with’, is rooted in our loving desire to be alongside one another in our common struggle for a better spiritual and social reality. Compassion is an act of resistance because the compassionate cannot rest until all suffering has ended. Compassion is the recognition that none of us are free until we are all free.

  • Sufilizard

    This sounds like it’s from a book. What’s the name of the book and where might it be found?

    • keith Hebden
      • Andy A-B

        This is an excerpt from the book? We should note this in the article…

        We should probably have it reviewed as well since you’re a long-time JR person (and I am biased at having met your briefly when I visited London several years ago).

        • keith Hebden

          Mark is about to be sent a pdf by the publisher. Thanks Andy. x

        • keith Hebden

          And it would be great to have you over again/for longer. Inshallah. ;) Perhaps we can take the gates of Highgate cemetery, eh?

          • Andy A-B

            Is that where Marx is buried? I never did get to see his grave…they charge money for that privilege :( I walked the perimeter instead.

          • keith Hebden

            Yes, that’s the one. I remember you being rightly annoyed about it. My wife and I managed to sneak in though. There’s usually away if you’re sneaky.

  • Andy A-B

    Great post Keith. I think you are right that at least in general there are nonviolent alternatives to violent options.

    Since, as you know, I have done quite a bit of research and work on policing, I want to push that issue a little though. The example you gave is a great one in which the police are not really helpful, and it is no use to call them. They’d rather you didn’t. So you, me, and the police agree, don’t call them on that kind of stuff. Work it out yourself. On this there is a really great book by Richard Sennett titled, The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life (London: Norton, 1970) which makes the case that disorderly situations like you lived in are helpful to us for developing nonviolent conflict mediation skills and that when we call the police to do that work for us, we lose the opportunity to develop real community skills.

    However, I wonder whether you really think it is true that a “nonviolent” alternative is available in every circumstance. While the vast majority of policing calls are the type you describe, and yes there are nonviolent alternatives, I wonder what you think about the margins where it doesn’t seem like a nonviolent solution is really possible because there has been a murder or something. It is a marginal issue; not the norm and everyday situation, and not one most people, most of the time face. So on the one hand it is kind of abstract. But on the other hand, there do seem to be situations that are far more violent and less likely to be resolved by somebody talking it out or waiting it out. What do you think? What’s the no-police solution?

    And if you call the police in that marginal case, is that being “violent”?

    • keith Hebden

      Thanks for the book suggestion and response. I can’t know that there is always a nonviolent response, or at least one that is practical. I also believe that to make nonviolence a moral imperative is – in it’s way an act of violence. And as a white, straight, middle-class man I cannot moralise subaltern people who choose violence. Gandhi seemed to have a hierarchy of options: Nonviolence first, which takes the most courage, then violence, but never cowardice. The example I give demonstrates that there wasn’t much of a nonviolent often because the structures/relationships weren’t in place to make it so. The imperative then is to build a world where nonviolent options are always available: through re-building community, re-skilling in nonviolence, and so on. In other words, as we engage with these sources of violence we make nonviolence not only possible but almost inevitable, in many circumstances.

      I think if you have the ability to meet your ends by means of violence chances are you’re not the one on the margins though. It’s been a while since I read read Ellul on this but I seemed to think he also felt it was indulgent to moralise the oppressed when they used violence against their oppressors – who wouldn’t do the same?

    • Elbon Kilpatrick

      It seems the NT lamb imagery (and in the OT) suggests vulnerability to violence and would suggest that Christians do not call police to resolve violence resulting in murder. The Christian may inform police about a murder but if there is a threat of murder toward the Christian it seems the Christian is not to fear the threat of death but seek peace with her/his enemy though the enemy may carry out his/her threat.

  • Wes Howard-Brook

    I appreciate the range of your social analysis of the causes of violence here, presented succinctly and clearly. I take strong issue, though, with your preliminary characterization of 1 Cor 5.5 and Acts 5 as examples of divine violence.

    First, in 1 Cor 5, Paul does NOT say “for the destruction of their bodies” as you quote, but rather, “for the destruction [Gk, olephron] of the flesh [Gk, sarx].” Many commentators have noted that this is not about violence to the body, but a sending of someone outside the “body of Christ” to experience what life is like “out there,” so that the person’s “fleshly” inclinations are destroyed and they can return. In fact, it is a nonviolent form of dealing with transgressors in the ekklesia.

    Second, in Acts 5, nothing at all suggests that God is causing the deaths of Ananias and Saphira. In fact, the story is clearly a parody, as is so common in Acts, as suggested by, among other things, the absurdity of a man’s wife not knowing that he had died and was buried. What happens is that they are “outed” for their attempt to lie about their commitment, and their fear strikes them dead.

    Finally, Matt 10.15 is certainly part of Matthew’s rhetoric of apocalyptic justice, a theme he includes frequently. However, in context, I read that as a function of the violence that takes place when a people live utterly contrary to the will of the Creator. In that sense, the violent effects of climate change are part of that tradition (see also Lev 26), but are a result of human sinfulness writ large.

    If we are going to engage the Bible in its own language of violence, I think it is very important not to paint with too broad a brush, but to consider each episode or rhetorical claim in its own narrative and cultural contexts, just as you do so well with the sources of violence.

    • keith Hebden

      Thanks Wes. I take my lead on this from Nelson-Pallmeyer. But then his “Jesus against Christianity” was written a long time ago now! (how time flies!) I’m happy to concede that their may be readings of these examples that might turn away the idea of God being violent. But the general point I wanted to make was that we need not sanitize the Bible or make the mistake of seeing the Old Testament as being about a violent God and the NT about a nonviolent God. Nothing is that neat in a Bible written in a real and oppressive world.

      My greatest motivation in writing this piece is to demystify the idea of heroic violence. None of these sources of violence are courage or heroism; unlike sacrificial, transformative, love (the type I only aspire too).

      • Andy A-B

        I think Wes would drop most books we have in the canon so that we can sanitize the Bible. Right Wes? You would drop books like Joshua correct? What about sections of Paul?

        • Wes Howard-Brook

          Keith: I love Jack N-P, but disagree with much of his analysis in that book. I’m grateful that you’re open to exploring other possibilities, and completely agree with you about not contrasting a violent OT YHWH with a peaceful NT God, which was the main point of “Come Out, My People!” FYI, see

          Not at all, Andy. The argument in “Come Out, My People!” is not intended to “sanitize,” but to uncover the arguments between those who would claim divine support for empire (including its violence) and those who reject those claims (such as Jesus and the authors of Genesis). Joshua is plainly a “religion of empire” text, written to justify Josiah’s violence as described in 2 Kg 23. It is important that we read those passages carefully, not ignore them. I really like the work done in the 90s by Gil Bailie in “Violence Unveiled” on the sacrificial violence in Joshua. A book I’ve had recommended to me on this but haven’t yet read is L. Rowlett, “Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence: A New Historicist Analysis.”

          Are there particular parts of Paul you’re concerned with on this topic?

  • Frank

    Violence is part of life, and like everything else it has its place – deny violence any place in reality, and you deny reality. Besides, by denying physical violence a place in the world you do intellectual violence to many world traditions.

    You know, I am sure, that Muhammed was a general (as well as husband, politician and father). This makes him very different from Christ, to be sure – now, if you seriously believe that the entire Divine Plan is disclosed ONLY through the Judaeo-Christian tradition, then I suppose you will have no problem dismissing Muhammed. Of course, God is bigger than Christianity. He created the entire Universe, he reveals himself in everything, not simply Christ and the Jewish tradition (though this is NOT to say Christ was not a great manifestation of the Logos – an ‘oceanic’ manifestation)

    So, to Muhammed (as just one example). What he shows us is that everything can, if done selflessly (meaning done for the Truth), have a place in the framework of right-living. Politics, soldiery, fatherhood, husbandhood, etc. Muhammed’s ‘sanctification’ of these everyday activites was his great gift to the people that would become Muslims.

    Another great early Muslim leader who exemplifies that violence, if engaged in selflessly, can have a place is Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammed. He is considered by many to be the archetype from which the Muslim mystic school of Sufism descended. It is told that in a battle against pagan unbelievers, Ali was wielding his sword like a scythe among wheat, when he came to a great pagan warrior. After a fierce fight Ali had the pagan down and was poised over him ready to give the deathblow, when the warrior spit in Ali’s face and harangued him. Ali, feeling anger at this, immediately sheathed his sword and stepped back. The pagan warrior, furious, asked Ali why he did not kill him, to which Ali replied “I do not fight for myself, but for the Truth”.

    Of course, I suppose by giving the above example I may be reinforcing the Christian stereotype of Islam as “the religion of the sword” (as if Muhammed was only a general). But, Islam is hardly the only tradition you do intellectual violence against by denying physical violence any place. War is present in many mythical creation stories, take the Hindu Bhagavad Gita for example (not to mention our own Old Testament!) NOT because ‘primitive’ people were violent barbarians but because war can be a great winnower. In the heat of battle, an alchemical process of purification of the soul can take place if the warrior is fighting for the right reasons and with the right mindset. Buddhism and Taoism too have their martial arts which were, at least originally, considered sacred – it is said that if the Buddha had wielded a sword he would have done it in the manner of a Zen monk.

    What you have done is to absolutize a particular belief (the belief that physical violence has no place in reality). However, the complete absolutizing of any belief on this plane of reality always has bad consequences, as stated above, and of course is false as only God is Absolute, all other things being relative to him. Physical violence, like all things under the sun, has its time and place.

    • keith Hebden

      Not that I follow the logic of your argument – and there’s no reason why logic should have the final say – but it appears that you are saying that the existence of violence validates violence as serving a function that is part of God’s. Is that right?

      Anyway, here is Simone Weil on the use of a sword: “Supposing the life of X…were linked to our own so that the two deaths had to be simultaneous, should we still wish him to die? If with our whole body and soul we desire life and if nevertheless without lying we can reply, “yes”, then we have the right to kill” (Gravity and Grace).

      • John T.

        Frank’s point is very logical – that the moral dilemma is bigger than the singular issue of violence.

        A hypothetical dilemma – to contrast with Simon Well’s hypothetical scenario (“the life of X…were linked to our own….. etc.) is what do we do if we can save two or more lives by taking one? Can we subsume the lives of one or more people into our absolute ethic of non-violence, that is, can we sacrifice a human life for our ethical framework? Is this really what it means to be more human? Or does compassion and logic play as much a part, if not a bigger part, in dealing with dilemmas as ethical frameworks do? Are compassion and logic less human than morals? Does the holy spirit move through love or through the knowledge of good and evil?

        • keith Hebden

          Big questions! Thanks John.

    • Andy A-B

      The site is called “Jesus” Radicals. This site does not seek to proclaim a God named Allah, but the Trinity. The ultimate reality of the word is not a tragedy of Hindu cyclicism in which it is all just one damn thing after another, nor the tragedy of Allah. The ultimate reality of the world is the nonviolent relation within the Godhead, in which the Father gives the Son “his” entire being, completely emptying the Father, and the Son does likewise in a mutual relationship of giving and receiving between two “Others” that are sealed in the mutual breathing forth of the Holy Spirit in the kiss. “Reality” is within that relationship of otherness already established within God, who has no need to use violence.

      That relationship defines reality. It is a logic in which consumption does not ultimately win the day. It is to that which we return, and which Christians bear witness by living a nonviolent life now as a sign of peace. All these other “religions” (if there is such a thing as religion) operate under the logic of consumption and violence with no hope for peace. As Keith says, Jesus stops this cycle by refusing the sword, and I add that he reveals to us the trinitarian relationship that undergirds reality.

      • John T.

        Andy, your short comment covers some very broad theological concepts but I think they are as foreign to the bible as Hindu cyclicism is.

        “non-violent relation within the godhead”

        “ completely emptying the father”,

        “mutual breathing forth of the Holy Spirit in the kiss”

        “God, who has no need to use violence”

        Jesus “reveals to us the trinitarian relationship that undergirds reality.”

        Where do these ideas come from? They are certainly not mentioned in the bible, that seems to have much more in common with Allah the god of Abraham than with your own religious philosophy.

  • John T.

    A major source of violence that is missing from this analysis is deliberate calculated political violence of which there are two main types, 1/ imperial/colonial violence and 2/ resistance to imperialism and colonisation by the poor and disposessed.

    1/Imperial/colonial violence is the violent (or obvious potential of violence) imposition of a political and economic system onto unwilling communities. The dynamic of a technician in the US guiding a drone in Pakistan to systematically bomb people on an enemy list is not caused by the personal characteristics mentioned in Keith’s essay. While feelings of dehumanization, deference, fear etc are all mobilised in the propaganda justifications for the bombings and in the training of the technicians, they are not the source of the violence. The source is the execution, maintenance and defense of the calculated plans of a political and economic elites, in a nutshell it is capitalism.

    2/ resistance to imperialism and colonization by the poor and dispossessed “by any means necessary”. Once again this not an irrational dysfunctional response to poverty and oppression as drug and alcohol dependency, domestic violence and suicides are, it is an empowered calculated decision to act in ways other than systematic self destruction.

    Franz Fannon wrote that the reality of colonised people is that all power and resource has been taken from them – they have no material base at all to pursue their own liberation. The only historically real thing that is left to them is violence, the choice is to use violence or do nothing (and self destruct). Ghandi’s notion that it is more human to resist violently than not resist at all is a clear overlap of Fannon’s assertion. Gandhian non-violence is not pacifist. Gandhi and Fanon may disagree about the effectiveness of non-violence but the perspective of colonised people and their perception of their own humanity is different from Keith’s notions of being more human by absolutely rejecting violence.

    At the root of the predominantly white western non-violence movement is an adherence to the doctrine of the sanctity of life. Such a doctrine cannot be found in the bible, it is a concept of the European so-called enlightenment first popularized by Kant. Before then not even the Catholic church had a doctrine of the sanctity of life.

    The sanctity of human life is egoic idolatry, it is European liberalisms attempt at human self-sanctification. Only God is good. It seems to me that the bible paints humans as transient irrelevancies, just space dust in an infinite cosmos – not as sanctified beings. Our greatest claim to greatness is that god loves us despite being broken sinners, but beyond that we are nothing.

    The sanctity of human life is a western colonial ethical framework, it is different from the perspectives of the poor and oppressed, those who Jesus called blessed.

    Last century liberation theology took root in the Roman Catholic Church – It had at its core a christology of liberation and was of itself a creation of the poor and oppressed. Within it there was not a consensus on the use of violence but those who did support or engage in Latin American or Asian or African guerilla struggles were united in, and co-creators of, a christology of liberation along with the non-violent struggles. The gospel story was restored as a platform of and for the liberation of the poor and colonized for the first time since Nicea. But it was crushed by “The artist formerly known as Ratzinger” primarily on issues of the sanctity of human life – the issue of political violence. Imperial power and wealth was again defended by western world views.

    Since the extermination of liberation theology the poor nation churches have become much more right wing and white in their theologies. In the western affluent world radical christians have embraced a cult of non-violence and see history, the bible and the present circumstance through that lens. There is still a vacuum where Liberation theology used to be, a christology of liberation of the poor. The cult of non-violence is an impediment to such a spirituality re-emerging.

    And a final comment on the bible.

    I would not say “Violence is a dominant theme through both the Old Testament and the New Testament.” While there is plenty of violence this goes without any commentary and certainly without condemnation. Violence seems to be a non-issue in the bible.

    However what is a dominant theme in the old and new testaments is imperialism and colonisation, economic domination and poverty. All the stories relate to this in one way or another. Jesus most common saying was “blessed are the poor”. This theme is repeatedly expounded upon in great depth, unlike the issue of violence that seems to have been ignored by the bible writers.

    • keith Hebden

      Thanks John, the ‘cycle of oppression’ – rooted in liberation theology – begins with the imperialist oppression as a primary form of violence with the internalisation of that violence, followed by the violent response from those oppressed, completing the cycle.

      My defensive instinct is to distinguish here between internalised sources of violence and external contexts that lead to violence, your examples being of the latter. But, as with any attempt to categorise anything, it always sloshes up the sides and over the edge of any abstract boundary.

      • John T.

        The cycle of oppression/violence is completed when colonised people internalise the violence they are subjected to – suicide, domestic violence, drugs, gang/tribe war, stupid fights over nothing, etc. This is when the oppressed are so obsessed with hurting themselves that they cannot hurt or even conceive of hurting their oppressors, the causer’s of the violence and their suffering.

        The point at which oppressed groups transcend the internalised self destructive violence inflicted onto them by engaging in willful self empowerment, by violent or non-violent means, is the point at which the cycle of oppression/violence is broken, not the point at which the violence stops – that may or may not come later.

        The problem with the “cycle of violence” description is it sees imperialism and colonisation through a one dimensional framework of violence and non-violence. The real issues of colonisation and resistance are matters of land, economy, power and culture, not simply violence. While imperial/colonial systems can be described as “violent”, this word alone is a totally inadequate to describe imperialism and colonisation. This one dimensional description of “violence” equates the violence of the oppressor with the violence of the oppressed as the same phenomenon of “violence” and dismisses the self empowerment of the poor as being just as immoral as imperial violence is. It is a bit more complicated than that.

        The cycle of violence is real but it must be understood for what it is in real terms in real communities. When it is used as a moral platitude to dismiss the political violence of the poor it is no longer useful in understanding or resisting imperial violence.

        • keith Hebden

          I hope you don’t think I’m using nonviolence as a moral platitude. That’s certainly not my intention. And I agree, control of land is the issue in colonial struggle, not the recourse to violence. Jesus set out a model of nonviolent resistance but arguably his parables are more about land rights and his teaching is more about the forgiveness of debts. Its this stuff that really wound up the authorities. In Britain we almost never talk about who owns the land. It is imagined that all the green space are legitimately governed.

          • Andy A-B

            Can’t win them all Keith. Keep up the good work!

          • keith Hebden

            Thanks Andy. x

          • John T.


            You say – “Jesus set out a model of nonviolent resistance but arguably his parables are more about land rights and his teaching is more about the forgiveness of debts.”

            Jesus parables and teachings are more than arguably about land rights and economic redistribution – they are clearly and obviously about these things. However Jesus said and taught nothing about non-violence, in fact he said “I come not to bring peace, but to a sword” and “I have come to cast fire upon the Earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!” and he drove people from the temple with a whip. These are not the sort of things you would expect from a model of non-violence, are they?

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